Black Ukrainian Refugee Fashion Designer Welcomed in Budapest

In Budapest

Eno Enyieokpon in one of his creations.

For Eno Enyieokpon, the upheaval caused by the war in Ukraine is the latest in a series of challenges on his journey to create a world-class fashion brand. But, after fleeing Ukraine and following the showcase of his brand Enno at Budapest Fashion Week back in April, he’s on the way to his next big adventure in Hungary.

Enyieokpon arrived in Budapest seven days after the war broke out on February 24, carrying only his official documents and academic qualifications. He began designing clothes back in his native Nigeria, but his mom was against the idea and wanted him to pursue an education that would set him up for what she felt was a “more sensible” career.

In 2012, Enyieokpon left Nigeria and headed for Belarus to study computer engineering. It’s not at all unusual for Africans to attend university in Eastern Europe. Under communism in the 1970s and ’80s, there were a large number of African students studying in Hungary. In 2018, Hungary had a black member of parliament, Olivio Kocsis-Cake of the then opposition Párbeszéd (Dialogue) party.

But, as a foreigner, Enno could not start a business in Belarus. In September 2017, after winning a fashion contest for young designers organized by Belarusian brand Mark Formelle, Enyieokpon moved to Ukraine.

“The dean of a university in Kyiv saw my winning collection and invited me to continue my masters’ program there,” explains Enyieokpon.

He says he encountered racism in Ukraine. “It was difficult finding a lawyer willing to work with a black man, a store owner willing to rent to me, or workers willing to listen to me. But I had invested mentally, financially, and psychologically in Europe since I arrived in 2012. And most of the ideas that really changed my life as a designer came at this time, one of my toughest in Ukraine.”

Immediately after Enyieokpon opened his atelier and showroom, he started making statement collections. Business blossomed. He began designing and making clothes for top Ukrainian artists and dancers, such as Monatik and Vladimir Dentes, as well as TV presenters. Because he was focused on menswear, he also dressed significant Russian artists like Artik.

Growing Brand

By the end of 2021, Enyieokpon’s brand was doing even better. He had created a collection for Mitsubishi Motors Ukraine for a fashion show that was supposed to take place in March 2022.

Eno also participated in Ukrainian Fashion Week, held online because of COVID-19 in late March 2021. This event was affiliated with the prestigious Budapest Central European Fashion Week (not to be confused with Budapest Fashion Week), which aims to place Budapest on the fashion global fashion map.

Enyieokpon, his reputation growing, says he had no intention of ever leaving Ukraine. Then came the Russian invasion.

Forced to leave all his belongings in his showroom, when Enyieokpon arrived at Budapest’s Nyugati railway station in February, he knew no one in Hungary.

“I was getting ready to spend the night at Nyugati,” he says, “when a lady by the name of Ágnes walked up to me and asked me if I needed a place to say.”

When Enyieokpon replied that he did, the woman sent him to Anna Farquhar, a friend of hers who happened to know the organizers of Budapest Fashion Week. As he says, “With just one phone call, I got to be part of April’s Budapest Fashion Week.”

It’s hardly surprising that Enyieokpon describes his brand as “A symbol of what is possible.”

Budapest Platform

Enyieokpon inevitably misses his showroom and atelier, equipment that took him years to acquire, and, most of all, his workers. But, for him, Budapest is “like a platform for me to contribute my own quota of creativity and help put Hungary on the global fashion map.” He also appreciates that “the people here are open to foreigners.”

Now, in the month that he expected to receive his Ukrainian passport, Enyieokpon is starting from zero all over again. He admits he has no idea what the future holds. And, as he told The Guardian website, “As a black refugee, I have limited opportunity.”

But, as Enyieokpon also said, “I’m trying to let every refugee out there know, I know it’s hard for you; new systems, no friends, no family, out there alone wondering if you can make it to the next day and stuff like that. But I want to say if you have willpower, if we had the will to withstand the Russians, we also have the willpower to move and forge ahead in life […]. I am 100% optimistic about the future.”

Right now, he’s selling Enno, Kyiv clothing on Instagram while he sets up a new atelier in Budapest and restructures his brand.

His message remains one of positivity. “The vision of my brand is to change the norms and make everyone see the possibility of becoming the person they want to be,” he says. “I want to tell the youth that irrespective of where you are located, you can still have a global impact. Your art and business shouldn’t be all about making money but also touching the souls and hearts of people.”

Following in Eno’s footsteps, other Ukrainian designers had the opportunity to present their collections in Budapest recently during September’s fall Budapest Central European Fashion Week as part of the “Support Ukrainian Fashion” initiative.

You can follow Eno and his brand Enno at eno_enyieokpon on Instagram.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 23, 2022.

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